A Frugal (Re)Past: Use of Oral Tradition to Buffer Foraging Risk

By Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise; Sugiyama, Lawrence | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

A Frugal (Re)Past: Use of Oral Tradition to Buffer Foraging Risk


Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise, Sugiyama, Lawrence, Studies in the Literary Imagination


I. WHAT FOLKLORE CAN TELL US ABOUT THE PAST

In 1875, Hinrich Rink proposed that where indigenous material culture had been largely supplanted by Western goods, a glimpse of pre-contact life might be had through oral traditions. Two lines of thought issue from this proposition. One sees oral tradition as a window onto past conditions, events, or practices of a local nature. For example, in support of archaeological evidence that their ancestors arrived in the Dobe area over a thousand years ago, Lee argues that the "Dobe !Kung ... have no tradition of being refugees from other areas" (Dobe !Kung 17; see also Boas, Kwakiutl Culture; Goodwin x; LeBlanc and Register 65; Opler, Lipan 6; Schaafsma 90). The second line of thought sees folklore as a window to past conditions of a pan-human nature. Biesele, for example, observes that Ju/'hoansi folktales "deal with problem points in living which must always have characterized the hunting-gathering adaptation, such as uncontrollable weather, difficulty in procuring game, danger from carnivore attacks, and correct relations with in-laws" (Women 13; see also Fock 17). Similarly, Daly and Wilson suggest that recurrent folklore themes may be "a reflection of certain basic, recurring tensions in human society" (85). These observations imply that oral traditions can be used to make inferences about past conditions, but do not provide theoretical support for this claim. Scalise Sugiyama's research ("Origins," "Social Mapping") provides the missing theoretical link. Because oral folklore content has been shaped by the constraints of memory, the oral traditions of foraging peoples constitute a record of, at least in part, the kinds of information humans are designed to notice, remember, and share with others in a foraging context.

On this view, the oral tradition is a cognitive artifact (Scalise Sugiyama, "Origins," "Social Mapping")--a record of universal patterns of thought that can be examined for clues to past selection pressures and cognitive design. Although the forager oral traditions available to us do not come straight from the Pleistocene, they are nevertheless the product of foraging cultures: the social and economic conditions under which contemporary foragers tell stories are similar to those under which ancestral humans told their tales. It is therefore plausible that the oral traditions of ancient and contemporary foraging peoples evince thematic continuities. Moreover, the antiquity of narrative points to its content and structure having been shaped by the information storage constraints imposed by a hunting-and-gathering lifestyle. Storytelling is an act of verbal communication; as such, it requires language, which evolved by the time H. sapiens migrated out of Africa 100,000 years ago. This date is conservative: the rudiments of language began evolving hundreds of thousands of years ago (Byrne; Dunbar; Falk; Holloway; Pfeiffer; Pinker), and storytelling might not require the full complexity of modern language for its expression: a five-year-old child, with limited vocabulary and imperfect grammar, can tell a story (Pitcher and Prelinger; Sutton-Smith) and "e lengeege weth e smell nember ef vewels cen remeen quete expresseve" (Pinker 354). These converging lines of evidence indicate that oral narrative emerged tens of thousands of years ago.

For the overwhelming majority of its existence, then, narrative has been transmitted orally and stored in the minds of storytellers and their audiences. As a result, the content of oral narrative has been shaped by the limitations of memory--specifically, by the kinds of information the mind is designed to attend to, store, and recall. Information acquisition is a fundamental adaptive problem: each species occupies a different ecological niche, and each niche has different information demands (Hauser). All species must solve the problem of acquiring the information requisite to survival and reproduction in their particular niche. …

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